A new political group calling itself VOICE of Oak Park (Voice, Openness, Inclusion, Community and Environment) has formed, and its members say they plan to support and endorse candidates in the April 2019 municipal election.
That election will decide three Oak Park village trustee seats, currently held by Bob Tucker, Andrea Button and James Taglia.
Oak Park resident Joshua Klayman, professor emeritus of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said the group held its first public meeting earlier this month, where residents voiced their concerns about the increasing tax burden on residents, transparency in village government, and responsible development.
“Affordability and diversity in Oak Park is another important issue, and we’re also very interested in environmental issues in the village,” Klayman said in a telephone interview.
The group’s stated goals include: restoring democracy in village government; making Oak Park affordable for residents; building a better village, “not just a bigger one”; creating economic diversity; and protect Oak Park’s environment by enhancing the parks and green spaces and promoting “energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.”
Klayman and some of the other organizers of VOICE first became public figures in 2016, when they opposed development of the 18-story luxury apartment high-rise by Albion Development at the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue.
The anti-Albion group argued that the building was too large for the downtown area — it is located across the street from the 21-story Vantage apartment building constructed in 2016 — and would cast a shadow on the adjacent Austin Gardens park, damaging the ecology of the public space.
Klayman said the Albion project is a good example of how the village makes decisions behind closed doors. He said development proposals are now brought to the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC), a quasi-governmental entity tasked with bringing new development to Oak Park. The OPEDC board deliberates on the proposals and provides a recommendation to the Oak Park Board of Trustees.
Those OPEDC board meetings, however, are not open to the public. Klayman said by the time they reach the public process, the proposals are a “done deal.”
“New, big developments like Vantage and Albion are a freight train in full motion by the time the public has anything to say about it,” he said, adding that large residential developments also are not required to include affordable units under village code and that each project is negotiated between the village and the developer.
Klayman said the group does not currently have any specific proposals but is aimed at listening to the interests of members of the public.
It’s uncertain what effect the new group would have on the Village Manager Association, a longtime Oak Park group that vets and slates candidates for public office. The VMA suffered a major setback in the 2017 municipal election, where not a single one of its candidates won public office.
The VMA’s incumbent trustee candidates, Glenn Brewer and Peter Barber, were defeated, as was the VMA’s chosen candidate for Village Clerk, Lori Malinski.
VMA President Lynn Kamenitsa declined to comment on the new organization.
Trustees Simone Boutet and Deno Andrews attended the first VOICE meeting. Boutet said in a telephone interview that she is not a member of the group but agreed there needs to be more transparency at OPEDC.
“They spend public funds in a way that is not publicly trackable and that’s an issue,” she said.
Boutet, who did not seek the VMA’s endorsement in her first run for public office last year, said she is not anti-VMA. “I consider the VMA the same as this group; they are groups of citizens who want to participate in democracy,” she said.
Deno Andrews told Wednesday Journal he has received some criticism from members of VOICE after voting in favor of the Albion project. Andrews said he was opposed to the project during his run for public office last year.
He said he believes in transparency but opposes the idea of making OPEDC meetings public.
“Yes, they could be more open, and they could give a little bit more news about what they’re doing, but do I want the public involved in looking at every detail of every development before it even gets proposed to us? No way, because nothing will ever happen,” he said. “Every developer will run away and say, ‘I’m not dealing with that town again.'”
* This story was updated to note that VOICE does not play to run a slate of candidates in the 2019 municipal election, but rather will support and endorse candidates.